"I realized, all right, God's on my side..."
Some performers have a knack for dance. All they need is a stage and pair of tap shoes, cue the lights and watch them go. Other AMTC grads are gifted actors. They take a script, a few musical numbers, and turn their sight toward the performance of a lifetime. Then there’s 14-year old Timothy TV Cao, dancer and recent star of Broadway’s Matilda at the Shubert Theatre in New York City. Timothy has been featured in several national commercials including spots for Nickelodeon and Mattel and recently had a guest-starring role on the CBS television program Limitless. In addition, he has also been featured in a Jill Scott music video. We sat down recently with Timothy and his mom Orelle to discuss his current career and adventures since graduating from SHINE.
When did you first get the acting bug?
My mom put me in dance when I was three, so it kind of led out from there. My first play was Winnie the Pooh, and that’s where I started singing. I guess it all started with musicals at Music Theatre Wichita.
You have had guest-starring -roles on several television programs; most recently playing a young informant on the CBS show Limitless. How do you prepare for a part on major network television?
Usually with commercial or television auditions, I look up the script, and if I really don’t understand it that much, I will call someone or set up a Skype session with one of my acting coaches, so they can help me out. But usually, I’ll ask myself, “How does my character relate to other characters, how do other characters see me, and what does my character want in this scene?” I’ve also done a commercial for WWE with Mattel, and a SpongeBob commercial. I was one of several kids sitting in a theatre who had to pee really bad (laughs).
You’ve studied dance at American Ballet Theatre, Dance 411, and even Broadway Dance Center. What style of dance do you feel you gravitate toward the most and why?
I really like classical ballet with the piano, because I take piano lessons now. You have to be graceful and firm at the same time. It takes a lot of work. I never thought I’d be into it. My Mom always thought of me as a tap dancer with regiment and stuff like that, but once I got to New York and took a private lesson with a ballet coach, it showed me that ballet is really graceful. Instead of tap, which is all feet work, I could use my whole body; it’s a circle to connect every single part of my body. So ballet really is the center of all types of dance. That’s probably the main reason I like it: it’s like meditating to me.
Last year you had an awesome opportunity where you played not one, but three characters in Broadway’s Matilda at the Shubert Theatre in New York City. How did this come about?
Yes, three characters- Tommy, Bruce, and Nigel. It was our first time going to New York, and I auditioned for it. Originally I had gotten the part of The Artful Dodger in Oliver, and at the same time I had auditioned for Matilda. The very next day after my callback for Matilda they told me that I had the part.
Timothy’s Mom, Orelle Cao, chimes in:
They actually called him an hour after the callback. They told him, “You start tomorrow.” Casting originally told us, “Don’t worry about it; come down with just a few days worth of stuff, because if we want him, it won’t be until June or July.” But they called us an hour after he did his callback and said, “He starts tomorrow.” So we stayed in New York, and all we had was three days worth of stuff… financially, we didn’t have the funds to stay; it was crazy. It was good, but we had all our plans turned upside down.
So you wanted to do Matilda more?
I enjoyed the movie Matilda, and that production was on Broadway, whereas Oliver wasn’t. So I already had more of a connection to Matilda, and Oliver was an off- Broadway production.
As a Christian, how have you seen God show up backstage or in the details of your career?
I used to ask myself, Why am I doing acting? Am I doing it for my Mom and Dad, for the agent… am I doing it for myself? And then I went to AMTC, and they showed me that I am doing it for God. That opened up the doors. Sometimes when I used to mess up in a play, I’d be really stressed out. But once I went to AMTC, I realized, All right, God’s on my side, and it feels like I’m more in control of the situation now that I have Someone by me.
At SHINE, you won several talent finales as well as overall male child actor, singer and model. How did AMTC help jump-start your career?
Originally I was more into the commercial side of acting. I had gone to California at one point. But when I went through AMTC, I was set on going to New York since I was more of a dancer. I met one of my agents, John, through AMTC, and he said that there was still room to do commercials in New York, so overall that opened more doors for me. When I went to New York, I met a lot of agents (that I had gotten callbacks from), and John was one of them who helped me out; he mentored me and showed me what I could do to help my career.
We have a few questions for Timothy’s Mom, Orelle Cao.
As a Mom, what advice would you give to parents who are looking to introduce their children to the industry?
Oh wow. It is not for the faint of heart. So if you’re not ready and you’re not strong in your faith, you need to get educated, which AMTC helps with so much. But if you don’t have your faith, the education, and if you are not mentally strong as well, you will not make it; this is not for you (laughs).
Why did you decide to audition Timothy with AMTC?
Well to be honest, I was a little skeptical. But at the same time I was like, You know what? Why not. Timothy was mainly a dancer at the time; I didn’t even know that he could sing until one day I heard him singing in the shower. So every event that I took Timothy to, whether it was a dance recital or musical theatre locally, we always had people approaching, telling us, “He needs to get an agent.” “You need to take him to New York. He’s just so talented; he’s got a gift, and you need to go and share that.” And they would tell him never to give up and stuff like that. We had been to California before AMTC. But Timothy kind of got lost in the system. So we let that go; I mean we spent thousand of dollars, and they would forget that he was even there. We took a break after that, maybe about a year or two, just did some local stuff, and people once again came up to us saying, “Hey, this kid is great!” That’s when we saw the billboards for AMTC throughout downtown Wichita. We heard the radio ads, and it just kept gnawing at me, you know? I was like, man, we’ve already been through something like this before, because we were participating in an event with another talent development company, and we showed up to the hotel for a convention and it didn’t happen. So when I first initially heard of AMTC, I was like, I don’t want to go through something like that again. But that little nagging feeling had to be God, just telling me to give it a shot. At least go; at least show up and be there… And that’s what we did.